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Paddington is voiced by Ben Whishaw in Paddington 2.

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Paddington 2
Written by
Paul King and Simon Farnaby
Directed by
Paul King
Starring
Ben Whishaw, Sally Hawkins and Hugh Grant
Genre
Family
Classification
PG
Country
U.K./France/USA
Language
English
Year
2018

Through the annals of anthropomorphization, Paddington strides like a colossus – utterly human, completely bear. He gets marmalade stuck in his fur and struggles to grasp things with his paws, all the while conducting conversations in perfect English. His many human friends recognize his difference yet accept his presence in their midst. That was the genius of author Michael Bond, who created the beloved character in an enduring series of children's books launched in 1958; the achievement of the current Paddington movies is that they successfully reproduce the effect on film.

The key to 2014's winsome Paddington and now its sequel, Paddington 2, is the interaction between real human actors in a live-action feature and an irresistible CGI bear. This Paddington, so sweetly voiced by Ben Whishaw, is just ursine enough on the one hand and just teddy enough on the other to reproduce the charm of the original.

What is more difficult for filmmakers to copy is the shambling, episodic nature of the books, full of minor incidents and small scrapes. A feature-length film needs three acts of plot and, to that end, this franchise has introduced villains to Paddington's universe. Nicole Kidman played an evil taxidermist in the first film; now, Hugh Grant mugs his way (to increasingly successful comic effect) through a performance as an egomaniacal but fading actor who has stolen a mysterious pop-up book that Paddington was hoping to send to his Aunt Lucy back in Peru. (The film's most inspired effect is the animation of that paper book.) Paddington gets wrongfully accused of the theft and winds up in an Edwardian prison where he can counter the bullying of thugs and cutthroats with his signature move, the hard stare.

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If the protagonist washing windows with his behind seems much more in keeping with the Paddington spirit than a prison breakout or a steam-engine chase, director Paul King holds this together, partly because he keeps a strong hand on the finely detailed script that he co-wrote with Simon Farnaby, and partly thanks to his excellent cast. So, the darker tone of the bear's unlikely incarceration is appropriately softened by a typically Paddington escapade when he puts a red sock in the prison laundry and turns all the convicts' striped suits pink. Meanwhile, under Paddington's supervision, the prison canteen replaces gruel with marmalade sandwiches and petit fours.

The civilian cast has lots to nibble on, too: Hugh Bonneville's pleasantly exasperated Mr. Brown is having a midlife crisis; Sally Hawkins's warm Mrs. Brown adds just the right hint of the fantastical to the action, while Grant's diabolical Phoenix Buchanan delights in a final, scene-stealing production number. (Don't leave before the credits roll.)

Inspired by books that were published through the sixties and seventies and down to the present day, the action is set somewhere vaguely mid-century-ish. The Browns don't have cellphones or computers, but they do have a late-model car, while the final chase scene involves two steam trains on the one hand, and a light aircraft on the other. But most of all, this is a world in which regular people can still afford to live in terraced housing in central London, a place where a tight-knit community that welcomes an outsider into its heart can fight off any threat. Even in a sequel, Bond's furry metaphor survives its animation intact.

Paddington 2 opens on Jan. 12 across the country.

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